Grace's Favourite Comic Page: Smoke and Magic
Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, & Laura DePuy Martin's Planetary Issue #24, “Planetary Systems” (2006), p. 11.
‘Favorite’ is a volatile designation, especially in Comics Studies where the possibilities for innovation mean that there is hopefully always something new and brilliant just around the corner. That being said, this page from Planetary #24, “Planetary Systems,” continually recaptures the reader and scholar in me. The scene is a part of the series’ big reveal and takes place in the Planetary organization’s archives, which had me at hello. On this page, Elijah Snow, the series’ protagonist, is in the middle of explaining to his teammates, Jakita and The Drummer, how all of the seemingly disparate pieces of their adventures fit into a larger pattern. The entire issue is a marvelous play on the visual-verbal abilities of comics to simultaneously reference reality, fiction, past, and present, but this is the page that literally made me say “fuck yeah” aloud. I enjoy this page in particular because of both the verbal-visual tricks that the creators play with as well as how they leverage those technical twists to build a rhythm on the page.
A good example of how the creators leverage the verbal-visual abilities of the medium can be seen in the second panel of the page. As Snow explains how William Leather broke with their adversaries, The Four, the smoke of his illicit cigarette forms the figures of not only Snow’s subject but also Leather’s ancestors. Leather’s lineage plays a major role in connecting him to the larger arc of the series given that the systems that produced William Leather are the same systems that brought together the Planetary team. The visual reference reminds the reader of that history and connection without Snow having to verbally explain the complex interconnections. The smoke shows the reader Elijah’s internal vision, the context he is imagining while relating certain information to his teammates. When Jakita interrupts Elijah’s monologue in the next panel, she also disrupts the visions, returning them to simply tendrils of smoke and bringing the reader back to the page’s present. Without changing the visual third person perspective of the reader, the visible changes in the smoke play with the reader’s perspective and access to information in the story. Additionally, not only does this visualization place the moment within the larger context of the narrative, but it also becomes a metafictional hint to the reader about how to connect the actual Planetary issues to Snow’s revelations. Leather’s backstory was already explored in depth in Planetary #22, “The Torture of William Leather”. The smoke points the reader not only to an event within the text but also references the series’ structure.
When I wrote that the text and images were acting in concert, I might have better described them as stepping in time like well-matched dance partners. The dialogue pushes the reader forward linearly while the visuals guide the reader around and behind the actual text. For example, as the dialogue builds towards Elijah’s final sardonic comment, the visuals delay and preserve the moment by leading the reader’s eyes up and to the right, as if the smoke being depicted were in fact drifting up and across the page. Instead of seeming to be at odds, the verbal-visual elements work together to progress each panel at the right tempo. The dialogue is carefully split to highlight the motion of the art by stopping the eye with more dialogue when the reader should linger, and not bogging down the moment with too much text when the panels should start to pick up speed. This harmony builds up the definitive full stop of the last panel with Elijah visually stubbing out his cigarette and admitting out loud that after their meeting Leather needs new eyes. The complimentary pacing of the page’s elements all coalesce around this one moment to create a perfect punctuation to the buildup.
For all its formal brilliance, what makes this page my favorite is that at its core it is a clear demonstration of the magic of multiple creators working in unison. Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, and Laura DePuy Martin were the central creators that worked on the series, and the connection between them shines on the page. Despite brilliant individual creators, comics pages can lack a certain magic if the text and images act like oil and water – mediums placed next to each other in boxes instead of cohesive elements of one medium. Without this arguably essential cohesion, comics lose an elusive element of what makes them a medium in their own right as opposed to a collage of other mediums. This page demonstrates the strength of the comics medium when all of the creators involved are working to the same effect and building upon each other’s contributions. The importance of this collaboration is often ignored in scholarship, especially when as a holdover from literary criticism or an attempt at clarity the criticism primarily credits the writer. This page serves as a reminder to me as a scholar of the reward to be found in tackling the more complex but often more gratifying task of exploring not only all the elements on the page, but also all of the creators involved in the process. While I certainly hope to be continually wowed by innovation in comics, I will come back to this page as a favorite time and time again purely for this reminder.
 Nicholas LaBarre, Laura Perna, and Errol Rivera provide a fascinating exploration of Planetary’s intericonicity and metafictional visuals in their article “The Circulation of Icons in Planetary - Pictures, Popular Culture and Materiality.”